5 Reasons the Miami Heat Struggle Against Bad Teams
Sometimes, it seems as if the Heat are abiding by a mercy rule.
Every night Miami plays, it rolls out one of the more talented rosters in recent memory, one featuring the game's top player, three others who have combined for 25 All-Star appearances and a supporting cast of proven veterans.
And so, on those nights that the Heat face one of the league's lesser lights, it would seem inevitable that Erik Spoelstra's squad would roll over the opposition.
Instead, such domination has been the anomaly, even with the Heat leading the East with a 20-6 record.
Yes, the same Bobcats who have now lost 16 straight.
Next, the Heat play the Pistons, another team still short of double-digit wins this season. Yet, somehow, one gets the feeling it will be closer than anyone expects.
Why does this keep happening?
All quotes were collected as part of the author's work covering the Heat for The Palm Beach Post. All statistics were current as of Dec. 27.
Some Arrogance Is Understandable
You've never seen a coach so disappointed to hear that he didn't need to stop another team's stars.
Prior to a spotlighted clash with the Spurs, Erik Spoelstra learned that Gregg Popovich had sent his three top players, plus another starter, back to San Antonio. Rather than celebrate, Spoelstra seemed to bemoan the lost opportunity, repeatedly remarking that his team had been excited about the challenge.
And then, predictably, Miami played down to the level of competition, nearly falling to the likes of Matt Bonner and Nando de Colo.
Simply put, NBA players know when another team is worth their time.
This is especially true for a championship team like the Heat, which takes the court most nights with three of the four best players. With success comes some arrogance, and LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh aren't likely to summon quite the same focus and ferocity when facing starters who wouldn't find a place in the Heat rotation.
That's why it has been disappointing that some of the bad teams haven't faced Miami at full strength, as was the case with Cleveland, which didn't have Kyrie Irving, or New Orleans, which didn't have either Eric Gordon or Anthony Davis. Those are individuals who Miami would be more likely to respect.
No matter what Heat players say, there are some nights when they just don't see anyone on the other side who can seriously hurt them.
That's why, before the recent game in Charlotte, Spoelstra felt compelled to remind his players and then the media that "the last time we were in a situation like this, we didn't handle it well."
Spoelstra noted the following after the Christmas contest against the Thunder:
We had a healthy amount of respectful fear for what OKC was going to bring into that game, and our guys took the challenge. Now we're dealing with a totally different challenge, where it's not necessarily fear, but it has to be the same type of respect, and respect for what we're trying to do.
Nicely said, but not always easily done.
For the Opponent, It's the NBA Finals
There's a hashtag that's made the Twitter rounds for the likes of John Henson, Wayne Ellington, Omri Casspi and others who have gone from also-rans to All-Stars against Miami:
LeBron James, a regular League Pass watcher, has been among the many Heat players to take note of the phenomenon as well, observing that many opponents never seem to produce against others the way they do against the Heat.
Ellington is a perfect example. He made seven three-pointers against the Heat on Nov. 11, and then he took 34 days to make that many against everyone else.
He plays for a good team in the Memphis Grizzlies, but when Miami faces bad teams, it seems that several players are vying for designation with the aforementioned hashtag.
"We know by now we're going to get everybody's best," James said.
Why is that? Because it's the best chance for an opponent to get noticed, considering the full houses when the Heat play at home or on the road and the spotlight on everything that happens to them during and after games. If you're on a team with little chance to make the playoffs, that makes the Miami matchups the most meaningful of the season.
But what about a fear factor? Shouldn't that make players shrink rather than soar? Said Dwyane Wade:
It's a different time. Back when the Bulls were playing, they won games just by warming up. It’s just a different time. I don’t know if that fear factor is there as much. I’m not saying it’s not there. Obviously, when you play certain teams and you know they’ve got a lot, you’re like, it’s going to be a long night. But I don’t know if it’s the same fear factor as what the Bulls probably had back in their dominant years, or the Lakers in a couple of their dominant years as well.
Chris Bosh believes the fear factor does exist, and it plays a role in the opponents' outperformance.
Well, that fear factor makes you play harder. Because you know if we don’t play a certain way tonight, we’re going to get embarrassed. That makes you play harder, makes you play better, makes you focused a lot more.
And makes the most mortal appear formidable.
Sometimes a Strength Is a Heat Weakness
No NBA team is perfect in every way, not even the reigning and reloaded champions.
Miami has exploitable weaknesses, not only in the paint due to its lack of size, but on the perimeter due to Mario Chalmers' lack of lateral quickness. It also has a defensive scheme that demands players concentrate first on protecting the basket while still closing out on shooters.
Sometimes, these deficiencies and that strategy will play right into some individual's hands. The individual doesn't need to be great at everything; he merely needs to be really good at one thing that the Heat have some trouble countering.
That is why you see average three-point shooters, given more space, splashing several long jumpers.
That is why you see decent rebounders setting season highs by the third quarter.
That is why you see what the Charlotte crowd saw recently, with Kemba Walker and Ramon Sessions, who has had several big games against Miami, violating the Heat's defense and getting or setting up good shots.
"It was a challenge to try to keep him out of the paint," Erik Spoelstra said of Walker.
As it has been a challenge to corral many lesser point guards.
The league's greatest challenge of all is LeBron James, meaning, more often than not, the Heat will overcome their struggles in other areas.
But not always. And certainly not always early enough for an easy win.
Over a Long Season, You Pick Your Spots
ESPN's Pardon the Interruption features an interview segment called "Five Good Minutes."
Often, Miami approaches games with the motto in mind, assuming that's all it will need.
After all, it only takes a five-minute flurry of steals, blocks, slams and threes for the Heat to turn a small deficit into a 10-point lead. And when you know you can do that, it's natural to take that for granted. And when you know that you'll likely be playing until late in May, it's also natural to go half-throttle until absolutely necessary.
Sometimes, the Heat just wait a quarter to engage. That was the case in the Dec. 8 win against the Hornets, when a 33-15 second quarter turned a tight contest into a runaway.
Sometimes, the Heat just wait too long to engage, especially on defense.
That was the problem in Washington, when Miami, not heeding the warnings of its coach, let Jordan Crawford and Kevin Seraphin run roughshod. In recent games, Ray Allen had saved Miami with a late dagger, but against the Wizards, he couldn't connect, giving Washington its second win of the season.
After that loss, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade sang a different tune than Erik Spoelstra, saying the humiliation hadn't served as any "lesson."
There have been signs of late, however, that one was heeded.
Miami left nothing to chance in the rematch with the Wizards, winning by 30, and the Heat haven't allowed more than 97 points to any of its past nine opponents.
The Greater Goal Is Always in Mind
Does it matter?
That's the question that can't be ignored in any evaluation of the Heat this season.
Just look at the East.
The Knicks have stopped Miami twice and, even amid injuries, have shown some staying power. Atlanta is a bit better than expected. But the teams that truly have Miami's respect, Boston and Chicago, are still works in progress, with the Bulls not a material threat unless Derrick Rose returns at close to his prior form.
In light of this, some sleepwalking is understandable. This Heat reached the NBA Finals in 2011 as a No. 2 seed, and it won the championship last season against an Oklahoma City squad that held home-court advantage.
That makes it harder to pretend that the regular season means much, other than offering an opportunity to tinker while hoping to emerge healthy for May and June.
So the Heat will get up for the teams, like the Thunder, that provide true tests of where they are and where they need to be. And they will treat many of the other games like practice, saving energy where they can, turning it on when they must, not stressing too much if they fall short.
They will do this in spite of what Chris Bosh said prior to the recent trap game against the Bobcats, when he promised Miami was over its issues of overconfidence and under-stimulation:
You know what, I think we’ve reached that point. I think we had enough drop-off throughout the season to where we didn’t have those outputs and we weren’t taking care of business early. And we know what can happen. You can get beat by anybody at any time in this league, we noticed that in Washington. Right now is the time where if we take care of business, we just really come out and play like we are capable of early, play good defense first and foremost and play together, everything else will take care of itself.
And they did what he vowed. For a half. Then they drifted, rallied and—as owner Micky Arison tweeted—"escaped."
Expect to see plenty of that for the next four months.